Traditions, Liturgy, and Advent

Traditions

Do you have any Christmas traditions? Did your family have them when you were growing up? What were they? Take a moment to think about them. Are your memories of them fond? I bet you have more traditions then you think. Sometimes that which is normal to us becomes invisible.

I will give you one example from my own life. If you are a part of the Van Dyke family, then Christmas day had a very important tradition. It actually started the night before. My brothers and I would all sleep in the same room. We weren’t allowed to exit that room until the next day when we heard Christmas music – It always seemed to be Bing Crosby. When the music started playing, we would run down the hall towards the kitchen – it became a full contact sport as we got older and older- and there in the kitchen we would find glasses of orange juice. We would race to drink the glasses of orange juice and sit down. The first one finished and seated was the victor and the first to get to open a gift. No one quite knows how this tradition got started. It proceeded my brothers and me. And yet we all continue it with our own children to this day. You can say that in a weird and funny way, it marks us as a family.

The Christmas season is full of opportunities to make traditions, renew old ones, or borrow from others.

Liturgy

These traditions can be really important markers in our life. They can mark us as a family, a culture, or even as Christians. Within the church, these traditions have a special name – liturgy. A liturgy refers to the structure and ritual of a church service with a purpose to point us and others to God. Liturgies are the structures we use to formalize our worship. They are structures that are meant to teach us something, express something to others, and lead us into deeper worship. Some churches are more “liturgical” than others. Some denominations and churches have highly structured ways of worship. If you grew up in a highly structured church or “high” church, as it is sometimes called, then you will know what I am talking about. You may even balk at my mentioning them because all that form and structure stifled your worship.

But here is the problem. As James K.A. Smith talks frequently about, the problem is not in the form, structure, or liturgies themselves. The problem is how we use them.

Think about the Christmas traditions that we just talked about. I don’t think many of us would say that those rituals or traditions have stifled Christmas. Just the opposite. Those traditions marked us. They give us an identity as a family, part of an ongoing story. They form and inform our worship. As Paul David Tripp says, “worship is an identity before it is an activity.” We are made to worship, and we will worship something, and we will create structures for our worship, whether we know it or not.

Advent

Which brings me to my ultimate point: Advent. We are in the middle of this Advent season. You may or may not have noticed the candles upfront of the church, the special prayer, and the lighting of those candles these past two Sundays, but those are a part of the way we, as a church, recognize that we are in the Advent season. Advent means coming. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. It starts 4 weeks before Christmas, so we already in the 2nd week of Advent.

Each week is marked by a different word – Hope, Love, Joy, Peace – or Bible reading. There have been more traditional ways of celebrating Advent with specific Bible readings, an Advent wreath, etc. Advent is a liturgy/tradition of the church and hopefully will be a liturgy in your family and your life.

Why?

Advent is a season of looking back- of remembering what God has done. Advent is about placing ourselves, as a community and family, in that part of history that looked towards the coming of Jesus, not back at it. It’s about connecting to what is being sung when we hear Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. Ponder these words from that great hymn

Come thou long expected Jesus

Born to set Thy people free;

From our fears and sins release us,

Let us find our rest in Thee.

Have you ever been to a jewelry store? If you have you know that they always display the diamonds on black velvet. They do that so that the brilliance and beauty of that diamond can be seen in its entirety. Advent is like that. It is about remembering the black velvet of Ephesians 2:1-3 (you were dead in your sins and trespasses…) so the diamond of Ephesians 2:4-10 (But God, being rich in mercy…) can shine bright.

That is Advent. A season of remembering the bad news so we can fully appreciate the glad tidings of great joy. We need Christmas. We need to celebrate better and with more joy than the world does. But we shouldn’t rush to the 25th without taking some time to remember what we are celebrating and why we are celebrating it. Advent is one of those liturgies, traditions, rituals, whatever word you like, that helps us see the weight.

Can a True Christian Lose their Salvation?

In Sunday’s message we explored what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit from Matthew 12:22-32, where Jesus heals a demon-oppressed man, and the religious leaders attribute Jesus’ power to the work of demons. We learned that blaspheming the Spirit is settled opposition or resistance to God in the heart. The drift towards final rejection of Jesus is revealed when we attribute God’s transforming work to someone or something other than God or question Jesus’ power to change circumstances or people. This miraculous healing is accounted for in three of the four Gospels (see also Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). Each account has different audiences (Pharisees in Matthew, scribes in Mark, and disciples in Luke). In each account, Jesus does not say that the audience has blasphemed the Spirit, but rather that unbelief sets a person’s life on that trajectory.

If you haven’t heard the message, I encourage you to check it out. Following the message, I had a couple of people ask me if I was suggesting that a true Christian could blaspheme the Spirit and lose their salvation. While I had hoped I was clear on this point, I thought it would be wise to answer this question with as much clarity as possible.

The answer to this question biblically is a clear, resounding, emphatic “no”. A true Christian cannot lose their salvation. There are several verses that gives us this assurance. In 1 John 5:11, John writes, “This is the testimony that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” God gives us eternal life – not temporary life – by faith. This promise is confirmed in Romans 8:30. Paul writes, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Notice the progression. The predestined are called, the called are justified, the justified are glorified. There is no uncertainty here. God’s work of salvation will be brought to completion in us by faith (see Philippians 1:6). In 1 Corinthians 1:8-9, Paul writes, “Jesus Christ will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Those who are truly in Christ will finish the race set before them.

How, then, do we reconcile the reality that we cannot lose our salvation with the warning Jesus gives about not blaspheming the Spirit? This isn’t the only warning offered to true believers in Scripture. There are multiple references in the New Testament where Christians are warned against willful sin against God. Hebrews 6 and 10 could give you the impression that a Christian can lose their salvation. The Apostle John also dealt with these issues in 1 John. He actually tells us that he wrote 1 John to help assure the believers of their standing in Christ (“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” [5:13]).

The person who has blasphemed the Spirit is either unwilling or unable to repent. They have no desire for God, no interest in spiritual things, and nothing but contempt for Jesus and the Spirit’s work in their lives. But the life of a true Christian is a life of repentance and belief. Not just one-time repentance and faith, but a daily posture of repentance and faith. If you have that posture and desire, you can’t blaspheme the Spirit.

Someone who is truly in Christ will not remain in a willful state of defiance against God. In fact, that’s John’s point in 1 John. He writes, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6). Henry Alford says this about blaspheming the Spirit (the unpardonable sin): “It is not a particular species of sin which is here condemned (like, oh have I done that one thing?) but a definite act showing a state of sin, and that state a willful determined opposition to the present power of the Holy Spirit; and this as shown by its fruit, blasphemy.” Did you notice the key? Willful determined opposition.

A true Christian may experience a season of disobedience. But he or she will not remain there. He or she will not set up long-term camp in a life of disobedience. We can grieve the Spirit and quench His work in our lives, but a true Christian cannot and will not dig his or her heels in the dirt in opposition to the Spirit’s work. God’s Spirit will lead them to repentance. Our very repentance is evidence of God’s mercy to awaken us to our need and set us back on course in our faith.

We must remember that the evidence of our faith is not merely a past decision or past act of faith. Many believers have a false assurance of salvation because the basis of their hope (confession of faith as a child) is not matched but an active, vibrant, present pursuit of Christ. Our salvation is revealed as much by the present expression of faith and repentance as past expressions of faith and repentance. If a person has a kind of hardness of heart that sees Jesus as true, but willingly walks away from his influence, authority, and work in their lives, they are on a perilous trajectory spiritually.

This is why the Holy Spirit warns those on the edge of danger: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Psalm 95:7-8; Hebrews 3:7-8).